How to Teach Physics to Your Dog by Chad Orzel

How to Teach Physics to Your Dog cover
I will admit to being a strange person considering I do magic squares (math problems) for fun, but Chad Orzel has come up with an interesting frame story method of explaining quantum physics in How to Teach Physics to Your Dog that even offered laugh-aloud and quote-to-family passages.

This book is a basic primer for quantum physics.

Classical physics is somewhat approachable. You see the impact of the physical laws every day. When your car dies, push starting it is a pain, right? That’s inertia and requires the introduction of force to overcome. You slam on the brakes (see my snowmageddon tale of horror for how ice reduces friction and affects this) and the car keeps moving forward for a bit or jerks to a halt, shaking up everyone inside (the momentum has to go somewhere). A semi hits a compact sedan, and no one is shocked that the sedan is toast.

Hmm, all these car examples don’t have anything to do with the fact that my kids are entering driving age, do they?

Regardless, seeing physics in action is as easy as opening your eyes.

Quantum physics, on the other hand, is all about the probability of actions of microscopic (or smaller) particles. It’s about thought problems where a cat is either dead, not dead, or in a deadly rage because some nutty scientist has put (or hasn’t put) a radioactive particle into the box as well. (Schrodinger’s Cat in case the reference isn’t clear.) Is there any question why Albert Einstein, of E=mc2, thought this was all a bit ridiculous?

Humans like tangible. We like to see and touch.

Quantum physics messes with all that by introducing objects that can only be detected by the results of their presence, by microscopic baseballs that simultaneously thwack you on the head while scattering like sand in the wind, by particles that move through solid walls, and many other illogical–but detectable–events.

Into this mess and confusion comes Emmy, a dog rescued from the pound who has a healthy dose of curiosity, and a squirrel and bunny fixation that allows her to comprehend complex science. Though she doesn’t find steak under the desk, she’s comforted by the knowledge that somewhere there exists another probability world where another version of her does. (Yes, I fall on the side of the many worlds theory. It has much more inherent possibility than a mystical collapsing wave.)

Orzel does a wonderful job of finding physical parallels to explain quantum concepts in ways that make a reasonable amount of sense, whether in the behavior of dogs on a walk or the “magically” refilled food bowl. Though scientifically inclined, through a series of events I ended up with little formal training, and this book is written for people in just that situation–curious but untrained. Orzel only lost me once, on the concept of quantum teleportation (which is nothing like Star Trek and Orzel explains why), but a couple days, and a few more pages, later I have a pretty solid picture in my head.

Though I’m a cat person, I’ve been around enough dogs to recognize the behaviors and dog-generated events (unlike the car engine and sports analogies employed by my classical physics prof so many years ago :p). I enjoyed learning with Emmy. She makes a good sidekick…or maybe a bad one. In novels, the author often introduces a new character onto the scene to open the opportunity of discovering the world (a local wouldn’t bother noticing anything). Emmy offers that chance, while at the same time delighting with her fun personality and obsession with the bunnies, especially virtual ones made of cheese. She makes a good stab at stealing the show, sometimes literally by bringing the discussion of a difficult concept to an end (or at least a break) so she can chase a squirrel or two.

As a closer, Orzel debunks a bunch of misuses of quantum physics to scam people with health and business ventures. Heck, I’d love to be able to choose the most interesting among the many worlds, but to do so, I’d have to eliminate myself from the equation, and floating outside of probability doesn’t sound all that appealing.

If you have any interest in quantum physics…or amusing dog theories…this is a worthwhile read. You can learn more about the book and Orzel at his website:

P.S. If my review sounds a bit like psychotic babble, it’s just because I learned something. Go ahead. Read the book and then see if my side comments don’t make perfect sense :).

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3 Responses to How to Teach Physics to Your Dog by Chad Orzel

  1. Gio Clairval says:

    A couple of well-crafted quantum-mystique metaphors? Enough to send me running to buy Ozel’s book. Thank you!

    • MarFisk says:

      Hope you enjoy it. Come back and drop a comment when you’re done reading. I’d love to know if I’m just a little science happy. Though a couple friends have said that he gives presentations at Boskcon (in Boston, MA) each year, so I’m not alone…just not on the East Coast :p.

  2. Dave Mangham says:

    Seriously. How did not I come up with this?

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